Tell me it's OK

I have been living for other people but now I know it's time for a change. How do I get on with my life?

Published May 26, 2004 7:14PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a healthy, fairly sane, single 34-year-old male, with a stable professional career, a house and plenty of good friends. But for the past 10 years I've felt stuck living a life that I haven't really wanted. I live in a town that I dislike, own a house that I don't want, and have a job that I'm less than passionate about. This creates a tremendous amount of anxiety and guilt for me -- particularly because it makes me feel ungrateful for all that I have. Many people in the world would kill to have the stability that I do. But I'm starting to feel like happiness and stability are disassociated concepts. I need a change, Cary, but the inevitable loss of my current stability and the potential pain inflicted by "abandoning" my single mother and grandfather haunts me.

I have lived in Toledo, Ohio, for the better part of my 34 years. Some people are obviously OK with spending their lives here, and that's fine. I'm not here to make a judgment about them. But after all this time, I still haven't found the intellectual and cultural stimulation that I crave. I have difficulty relating to the priorities, politics and dreams of the majority of people who live here. I want to move, but I feel a kind of guilt holding me back -- that it's snobbish of me not to appreciate my current surroundings and that moving would be the death knell to my mother and grandfather who still live here.

My job is laid back, highly stable (unionized), well paid, and rewarding in that I enjoy working toward a higher purpose than simply enriching myself or someone else. However, I really don't feel passionately about it. It was a career that I stumbled into after my father encouraged me to attend engineering school, which I was reluctant to do. At that time, I didn't have much direction in life, but now I have found something that I'm truly passionate about and would love to spend my life pursuing -- neuroscience and social psychology. I literally dream about pursuing a Ph.D. and ultimately working or teaching in this field!

OK, now for the house. Four years ago I bought our old family homestead because my grandfather was too ill to maintain it (he has since fully recovered and moved in with his girlfriend). I thought it was the right thing to do at the time -- to keep the house in the family -- and had forgone a job offer in Portland, Ore., in order to buy it. Now I regret having passed up that opportunity and I'm starting to feel resentful for buying the house and the associated trappings. As a single man, I don't need this big house, with my big fenced yard and my big house payments, and this big tether keeping me tied down in Toledo.

Anyway, the trend is becoming apparent, even to me, as I write this. I keep living my life for other people and not for me. I'm afraid that in pursuing my own life and dreams I will let my relatives down. I haven't followed my passions for human behavior, neuroscience, music, cultural diversity, but have kept them at arm's length because I'm afraid to take chances and to potentially hurt the people that have become reliant upon me. As a result, my life is comfortable, but I'm not flourishing as I imagine I would, if I were really pursuing my passions in a more stimulating environment.

So, I've been thinking about moving on with my life. To that end, I've laid out a 1.5-year plan on which I've started. The overall plan is to fix up and sell my home, move to Chicago, attend graduate school to get a Ph.D. in social biopsychology and then see where that takes me. I'm ready to take the leap and make some changes and start living the life that I want. But I feel ambivalent about embarking on the change because of my age (I'll be nearly 40 by the time I've completed a Ph.D. program), the effect it will have on my family, and some self-doubts (am I making the right choices?). But then I ask myself, "How many people pursue their dreams and end up regretting it?" I honestly can't think of any. I guess I'm asking for a push here, Cary. Tell me that it's OK to venture out on my own. Please.

Wavering but Willing

Dear Wavering,

Consider this a healthy, friendly shove: Go. You're absolutely making the right choice. I know it, you know it. It sounds like a wonderful plan.

But I also do not discount your concerns about leaving your family. So I will simply try to share with you my experience on that score. I have, as you may know, made my home in San Francisco for the last 25 years. But I grew up in Florida, and my family of origin is mainly scattered along the southeastern Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. It's far away. Plane tickets are expensive. For much of my life out here, I've been struggling to make ends meet, and haven't had the time or the money to travel regularly.

Consequently, I have missed out on a whole era during which nephews and cousins have grown and gotten married and had children of their own, and parents, uncles and siblings have gone through life-changing trials. I've missed a lot.

I had to come here. I had to find out. I don't ever wish I hadn't done it. I only sometimes wish I had done it better. I wish I had paid more attention to the passing years, that I had visited my family more often and taken more vacations, that perhaps every now and then, especially in the early years when I was rootless, that I had spent a few months on the East Coast every year or two, just keeping up.

Because now after such a long absence it's hard to walk into a family gathering and pick up where you left off. Who are these people? Who am I? What shaped us? How did we end up this way? What do we have in common after all these years? Where do you begin?

Follow your dream. There really is no choice. This is what your family would want you to do. No one who loves you would want you to be stifled, or to feel that you're wasting your life. But beware of winged time. Visit often. Remember birthdays. Use the phone. Don't take them for granted. Tempus fucking fugit.

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